Most know her as the owner of Cups La Jolla, the three-star green-certified cupcakery at 7857 Girard Ave., but attorney-turned-baker Michelle Lerach has a lot more than frosting up her sleeve.
In addition to plying La Jollans with deliciously organic cupcakes and strawberry milk for the last two years, she has been busy trying to save the sustainable farming movement — one tomato at a time.
Two years ago, after leaving her legal practice, Lerach was an intern at a goat farm in Sonoma, learning how to milk goats and make cheese. She overheard a neighboring farmer complain that he had been cited and fined because he had apparently violated labor laws by teaching an intern from the Future Farmers of America program on site at his tomato farm.
“It’s a common practice to utilize interns like this on farms in other countries, and it teaches them the basics of sustainable farming,” she said. “It just happens to be unlawful here.”
Lerach started researching the labor laws and talking to farming groups to see how she could offer assistance from the legal end.
Eventually, after lobbying for the creation of a non-university, nonprofit teaching institution that would provide on-site education for young farmers about the importance and practice of sustainable farming, Lerach made some headway. Last month, California decided to create the country’s first organic farming internship program.
“Things tend to happen in incremental steps, and this is only the first one, but it’s exciting,” she said. “At a minimum, the state has recognized the legitimacy of teaching on the farm. It may not be huge or complete yet, but I think it will continue to spread. We’re finally getting recognition for the cause.”
The program has only been implemented in Marin County so far, but Lerach is hopeful it’s just the beginning of something much bigger.
“I want to eventually offer a nationwide systemic fix. It’s a pro-bono legal battle I’ll probably be fighting until I die,” she laughed.
For Lerach, living an environmentally responsible lifestyle is not the result of following the latest fad. Growing up overseas as an Army brat, she said it was common practice during her childhood to haul recyclables to the community recycling bins on the street corner and to harvest vegetables from the family’s garden plot on the outskirts of town.
“It was just the way I grew up,” she said. “We never bought anything that came in glass that we didn’t return. This is just a return back to the way it was.”
Lerach now practices her own form of sustainable, local farming. She has an extensive garden where she provides most of the citrus, herbs and edible flowers for Cups and she periodically hosts dinners for local leaders in the sustainable farming movement. Creating a sense of community around local food is one of Lerach’s most pressing goals.
“One thing we need in La Jolla is a community garden that all of the kids from all of the schools could participate in and get to know what it feels like to grow something yourself,” she said. “In America, we’ve created the most efficient food system in the world, but our efficiency has become our downfall. I feel like we lost a generation in terms of a personal connection with food. If we can recreate that connection, I believe it will carry over into other green practices.”
Weil likes to joke that he hopes one day he’ll be out of a job. If he could have his way, there would be no need for his particular set of skills.
It’s a strange hope in today’s economic climate, to be sure. Weil is the director of sustainable operations at the University of California, San Diego, and though he loves what he does, he would prefer it if his expertise was not so marketable.
A retired Navy officer from the Civil Engineer Corps, Weil said he has always been “interested in maintaining the environment.” Growing up in San Diego, he spent a lot of time on the water and learned early on the importance of maintaining the delicate balance of the ocean environment.
Now at the helm of UCSD’s cutting-edge forays into sustainability, Weil gets to see the work he does — like spearheading efforts to get a 1.2-megawatt solar photovoltaic system up and running — wield its influence on the campus. What’s more, he can witness his impact on the future, even if he might not be around to see the day when jobs like his are obsolete.
“One thing I’m the most proud of is how we’ve been able to incorporate and involve students,” Weil said.
UCSD has emerged as a leader among other University of California campuses — and beyond — when it comes to green initiatives. Weil’s staff at UCSD’s Sustainability Resource Center (SRC) leads tours of the campus’ green efforts for groups from other UC campuses looking to green up themselves, in addition to the tours led for people from all over the world.
Visitors who come to see the campus’ eco-friendly efforts up close are shown the various current and future initiatives happening at the school, including a 30-megawatt natural-gas-fired combined heat and power system, the site of the 2.8-megawatt fuel cell to be completed in 2011 (the largest on any college campus) and the university’s “Solar Grove,” a grouping of Solar Trees atop two of the campus’ parking structures.
Staying ahead of the sustainability curve is no easy task, and Weil said a lot of his time is spent keeping up with green technology trends and figuring out how they can be implemented on UCSD’s campus.
“Everything we do is new,” he said. “Some of it has really never been done before and we have to figure a lot of things out. It takes a lot of time to stay on top of it all.”
The effort he puts into staying at the forefront doesn’t go unappreciated. Weil’s staff at the SRC says his efforts are invaluable when to comes to doing their own jobs.
“Dave keeps a finger on the pulse of sustainability, and that allows us to do our jobs,” said Kristin Hansen, sustainability analyst at the SRC. “People turn to him for information, and he relays it to us. We need that because there’s just no precedent for sustainability.”
Though UCSD is making big strides in sustainable technology, Weil believes his job is safe for now.
“We consider ourselves leaders in sustainability, but we can always do more,” he said. “A culture of sustainability just grew up with this campus. Overall, we want to be good environmental stewards.”
As an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1970s, Noble felt like he just didn’t quite fit in. He loved math and physics, so he studied those. He also loved art, so he pursued that, too.
“I felt like a man with no country,” he said. “I certainly didn’t fit in with the calculus crowd. I enjoyed the artists, but they didn’t care anything about physics.”
Noble decided that architecture would be a good combination of both worlds, and when he took a course called Environmental Control Systems in 1973, his mind was made up.
“I was fascinated that you could design a building that would use sunlight to both generate and avoid generating heat,” he said. “It was in line with my interests of healthy living.”
Noble soon discovered that, if he had indeed found his calling in green architecture, the path to success was not a well-traveled one.
“As a young architect pursuing the development of environmentally-friendly buildings, I realized you really had to be innovative because not a lot existed then,” he said. “Basically, if you couldn’t see it, you had to make it.”
Make it he did. Noble is now the founder and CEO of Envision Solar, and the inventor of the Solar Tree, a solar canopy with a single column acting as a trunk and a flexible “branch” that tracks the sun’s movement for maximum energy output. The trees are being “planted” on parking structures in an effort Noble likes to call “solar forestation.”
The trees come complete with an electric vehicle charging station, so when that movement begins to take off — as Noble strongly believes it will — the Solar Tree will be right in the thick of it.
“Electric cars and the infrastructure that will allow them to run are inseparable,” he said. “The vehicles are wonderful in many ways, but the electricity has to come from somewhere. If you have a new electric car, but the electricity produced to run it comes from a polluting plant nearby, this is a problem and you may be creating more damage than you want. Offsetting that usage should come from locally produced renewable energy, like solar.”